Amezaiku: Edible art from Japan

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At a Tokyo shop, Isono Mikako demonstrates how to pull the bunny’s back legs from a lump of hot sugar-and-rice-flour mixture in the ancient art of amezaiku. My friend Hatsumi took this photo.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My sticky, pink fingertips were rapidly turning red and silently screaming “hot, hot, hot.” At the same time, my brain was prompting me to work “faster, faster, faster.”  All the while, I was trying to remember the six cuts I needed to make in a specific order in less than three minutes to finish my task.

When  I was in Tokyo in 2014, I attempted amezaiku, the art of sculpting burn-inducing, liquified candy into recognizable shapes, such as mammals (ferocious lion, prancing stag), lifelike goldfish, multicolored dragons, birds and pretty much anything the artist can imagine.

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Ame-shin, a shop in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, where I tried my hand at amezaiku.

I had signed up for a hourlong workshop at Ame-Shin, a small business in the historic Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, to watch, learn and make an animal. Unfortunately, my woeful attempts elicited laughter from my friends Hatsumi and her mother, Mieko, who were along to translate what the instructors were saying. And as my hands were otherwise engaged, Hatsumi was also taking photographs.

As with many other types of arts and crafts, the Japanese have perfected the amezaiku technique and elevated it to a master level. But in this era of instant everything, when fewer people are willing to put in the time to learn traditional arts, it’s estimated there are fewer than 50 people in all of Japan who actively practice amezaiku.

The sun-filled shop, with three shiny wooden tables and matching benches, was spotless. Along the left rear wall, resting on two shelves, were finished animals, enveloped in clear plastic, waiting to be “adopted” by customers. Shinri Tezuka, shop owner and amezaiku artist, was sitting at a table near the opposite wall, crafting a series of pieces.

On the table in front of me was the model bunny I was going to attempt to copy and a metal tray with several sets of palm-sized, straight-handled, steel Japanese scissors.

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The heated mixture is dug out of the pot and attached to a wooden stick. The butterscotch-colored practice sugar mixture can be reheated and reused.

Instructor Isono Mikako began by using several chopsticks bundled together to dig a portion of the just-barely-pliable material, a deep butterscotch color, from its heating vessel. At Ame-Shin, students use a glutenous, rice flour-based sugar mixture combined with other undisclosed ingredients for the two practice runs before making the amezaiku they’ll take home. This third figure is white, made from a purer, edible sugar mixture.

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Mikako fashions the rice flour into a mushroom-like shape from which the running bunny will emerge. Hatsumi took this photo.

 

Mikako, herself a trainee of Tezuka, prepared the sugar by pulling it like taffy, then folded it back onto itself. Next, coaxing the edges inward, she formed it into a ball, which was attached to the business end of a chopstick. Plump and round, it more closely resembled a button mushroom than a flat lollipop.

The steps were demonstrated this way: On one side of the ball, a little of the sugar was delicately patted to begin making a rounded head. Next, two cuts were made behind the “head” on each side, with the pieces stretched up and out and pinched carefully into ears. The next two cuts were made lower on each side of the “chest,” by pushing the Japanese scissors deep into the “body.” These pieces were pulled down, narrowed and flattened into front paws.

For the fifth cut, at the rump end, Mikako used the scissors’ tips to grab a small button of sugar and twirled the scissors around the base for a tail. Below that, using thumb and index finger, a thick section of sugar was pulled down and out, being set up for the final cut. This was perhaps the hardest one of all, because by now the sugar was starting to set. But Mikako made it look easy. This cut separated enough of the sugar mixture so that the rear-facing back paws could be formed. Some overall body sculpting brought the bunny to life.

Among the key things Mikako cautioned me to remember: Work quickly and gently — no squishing. All easier said than done, considering that the sugar mixture was about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. We talked about the steps, then Tezuka demonstrated a second bunny. He’s been an amezaiku artist for about eight years (as of 2016), and his bunny was even better than Mikako’s.

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Mikako tries to guide my scissor cuts in the rapidly hardening candy. Hatsumi took this photo.

Then it was my turn. and I proved to be woefully inept. The ears were short and pointy. The front paws worse, stubs where they should have been indicating movement. Even the tail was an odd shape. And as for the back paws, well, my bunny wasn’t going to be “running” anywhere.

In fact, it didn’t even look like a bunny; one friend thought it looked like a Pokemon character. Aside from the distinct fact that I was burning my fingertips, I found cutting into the sugar to be the most difficult part. It was so thick that I couldn’t make the deeper cuts one-handed. Bringing my left hand on board to help didn’t solve anything and led the whole creation to begin to teeter off the end of the chopstick. Mikako stepped in to catch it before it could fall off altogether.

My second attempt was a little better because I had some idea of the heat and how difficult it was to manipulate the ball. But it was still very poor. Normally, the next attempt would be with the edible sugar, but Mikako and Tezuka took pity on me and let me have a third practice run.

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This bunny is what I was trying to emulate.

Alas, my fourth go was not my vision of a graceful Peter Cottontail either; it looked like it had made one too many trips to Mr. MacGregor’s vegetable patch. I was able to elongate the ears a little, and the tail was a cute puff, but the body was too chubby, and all four paws needed more length and definition. And calamity of calamities, one of the front paws broke off.

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Shinri Tezuka, owner of Ame-Shin, does surgery on my bunny. On the tray at left are several of my failed attempts and the model bunnies that Mikako and Tezuka demonstrated for me. Hatsumi took this photo.

Tezuka to the rescue! With a small torch, like something that might be used to caramelize the top of crème brûlée, he reattached my bunny’s paw.

Next it was time to decorate. Tezuka brought a small glass vial and a jar of toothpicks to the table. The vial held a tiny amount of diluted sugar colored a deep red with vegetable dye. He showed me how to apply the finishing touches to the face by making a series of close-together tiny dots to draw the nose, eyes and mouth. With the liquid diluted even further, he used a paintbrush to color the inside of the ears pinkish. Even animated, my bunny still wasn’t anything to brag about.

I had begun by naively asking if I would be allowed to choose the animal I wanted to make. I was told no, that all beginners start with a bunny because it is the easiest form to fashion, easy being a relative term.

Tezuka can be found most days at his shop. Sometimes he plies his trade at festivals, and he’s available to hire for private parties.

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I had great fun trying to make an amezaiku bunny, but as you can see, the result wasn’t stellar. Hatsumi took this photo.

Amezaiku is an ancient art, though sources disagree on just how old it is. Some say it dates to the Heian period (794-1185) and may have been introduced by Chinese performers visiting Japan. Others trace the art’s popularity to the more recent Edo period (1615-1868) in Japan.

For the past two centuries, amezaiku artists have been a popular attraction at street festivals. The Nagasaki University Library collection has several faded photographs, possibly hand-tinted, showing a little girl dressed in a kimono and geta (wooden shoes) gazing up at a series of completed figures, like birds on a wire, resting on what look like bamboo or reed poles. The amezaiku artist, deep in concentration, stands next to his multilevel portable podium at the right of the photo, with his back to the child, blowing air into a small, heated sugar globe, reminiscent of techniques a glassblower would use (technical advances and hygiene requirements would make this impossible today). Date and location of the images are unknown.

In another similar photo, dating to the late 1800s, three barefoot boys of differing heights, their backs to the camera, watch the artist at work.

Cincinnati-born painter Robert Frederick Blum (1857-1903) was similarly entranced by amezaiku. He traveled to Japan in the late 1890s and stayed for three years. Among the canvases he painted was “The Ameya” (1893).

In it, a group of children, including four carrying infants on their backs, crowd around the seated, blue-clad, bespectacled amezaiku artist, watching intently as he works. The portable workshop looks exactly like the photographs mentioned above. In the oil painting, the children are oblivious to the other street figures: a man pulling a rickshaw, the shops across the way or the adults walking past. It’s a lovely painting, capturing a colorful, more innocent moment in time. The painting hangs in the American Wing, gallery 766, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can also see it online at http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/10186.

A trip to Japan may seem a very long way to go just to see amezaiku in person. An easier option is to attend a Japanese cultural festival near your hometown. At Japan Fest, in September 2014 in an Atlanta suburb, I met Candy Miyuki, who has been performing amezaiku in America for nearly 20 years. If you’ve been to Walt Disney World in Orlando and visited the Japanese Pavilion, you may have seen her captivate young and old alike with her nimble fingers and narrative patter. After 17 years at Disney World, she struck out on her own in 2013.

Miyuki, whose real name is Miyuki Sugimori, is a Tokyo native and one of the few women amezaiku artists. She told me how enthralled she was when as a child of about 8 or 10 years old, she first saw amezaiku done. It seemed like magic, she says, and set her heart on learning the skills. She says she was not encouraged in this pursuit but persistence paid off as she finally persuaded her grandfather, a noted artist, to teach her.

In Atlanta, her demonstrations took place in a large exhibition hall, attended by several hundred people. Clad in a black hat with an eye-catching candy-striped band and with red sequins glued just below her left eye, Miyuki took suggestions from the audience as to what animals to make.

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Miyuki Sugimori, aka Candy Miyuki, cuts the feathers into a pink flamingo during a demonstration at JapanFest in an Atlanta suburb in 2014.

First up: a striking pink flamingo. The long-legged, feathered pink creature came to life in minutes. Next: a purple unicorn with a golden horn, requested by a little blonde girl who was sitting to my right. Once completed, Miyuki packaged the blue-winged mythical beast in a clear plastic bag and bestowed it upon the excited youngster.

Miyuki also fashioned a banana-holding brown monkey, and a brown and white dog. For her finale, she had the woman sitting to my left come to the stage and fashioned a sculpture of her.

She also performed for smaller gatherings later at her booth, where for about $10, visitors could select an animal from a laminated sheet for Miyuki to make.

A few amezaiku artists are based in the United States, such as Shinobu Ichiyanagi of Los Angeles, who left Japan more than 40 years, and his nephew Takafumi Ichiyanagi, who came over from Sapporo less than 10 years ago. They perform at private functions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, birthday parties and corporate events.

In Honolulu, Nathan and Chika Tanaka have been in business as Candy Art Hawaii since 2009. Nathan is a civil engineer by training (it’s still his primary income), but he went to Shizuoka, Japan, for three years with JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching program) and stayed another three years to teach English. Chika was born and raised in Toyama, Japan.

They learned amezaiku with an instructor, but there has also been a fair amount of trial and error.

“We had guidance from Ishiwari-sensei [sensei means teacher or master] in Osaka,” Nathan Tanaka said via email. “I believe Ishiwari-sensei is the only artist actively advertising to teach artists (for a fee of course). However, his teaching is more of a watch-and-observe style, with few instructions. I don’t want to generalize as a Westerner and this may be a stereotype, but the Japanese style of passing down a skill is to observe, do it a thousand times, and figure it out yourself. So my training was brief with Ishiwari-sensei, and most of our skill or knowledge of preparing the candy has been self-taught.”

Tanaka added that Miyuki contributed helpful tips when she stayed at the Tanakas’ house in Hawaii.

He was most sympathetic when I recounted my amezaiku experience.

“Burning your fingers is the hardest thing to overcome,” he concurred. “Another difficult thing while learning is you have a limited time to work with the candy before it becomes too hard or brittle to work with. A beginner will take longer to shape the candy, and that just adds another layer of difficulty. Yet, as a beginner, rushing to make your candy may not result in the desired shape. So either you carefully shape the candy but run the risk of running out of time, or you rush to make it in a careless way.”

In addition to performing candy sculpture, the Tanakas have another goal: making amezaiku a well-known word and popularizing it as an art form.

“When we walk into an event, we still hear people say, ‘It’s the candy artist,’” Tanaka said. “When we begin to hear them say ‘It’s the amezaiku artist,’ I’ll know we succeeded.  At the events that we go to, we have a sign/menu that says ‘amezaiku’ and we do hear people saying it, trying to pronounce it, or people will ask us what this art is called in Japan.

“Our business cards no longer say ‘candy artist,’ but rather ‘amezaiku artists.’ Our emails and agreements are also slowly making the switch from using the phrase candy art to amezaiku art. So person by person, we are hopefully spreading the word, amezaiku.”

To bring my bunny home safely in one piece, my Japanese friends thoughtfully provided a 6-inch-long rectangular tin. Today the bunny peeks out from atop a cloisonné vase sitting on a sideboard buffet in my dining room. I have no intention of ever eating it, though I am curious about how well the tiny silica gel packet inside the plastic will help preserve my attempt at amezaiku. Two years on, except for the fading food coloring, it looks as fresh as the May day I made it.

Quick reference: Ame-Shin, 1-4-3 Imado, ground floor, Taito-ku, Tokyo; www.ame-shin.com (in Japanese, with some English). Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, except Thursdays. About $21 for the workshop to make an amezaiku bunny for adults, about $17 for students under 18. Since my Tokyo visit, a second location has been added: Tokyo Skytree Town Solamachi, 1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. The first location displays but doesn’t sell amezaiku anymore, but the second one does.

Amezaiku Yoshihara, 1-23-5 Sendagi, Tomoe Building ground floor, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; ame-yoshihara.com (Japanese only). Open noon-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. About $21 for the workshop. On the website under “demonstration,” a short video shows Takahiro Yoshihara making a blue Pegasus and a seated white bunny.

Candy Art Hawaii, candyarthawaii.com. Site also has a video demonstration.

“Candy” Miyuki’s website: http://www.mynameiscandy5.com

Takahiro Mizuki, amezaiku sculptor based in Tokyo, http://www.amezaiku.com; very colorful site with many pictures and background information, in several languages including English. He will “fly anywhere on the planet” to do a demonstration, for a price, of course.

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